US Top Court Upholds Church Hiring Discrimination

January 12, 2012

The Supreme Court said churches could keep "control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs" (AFP/Getty Images, Spencer Platt)

The US Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the right of churches to discriminate in their employment decisions, calling it a matter of separation of church and state.

In the decision reached Wednesday, the court defended the so-called "pastoral exception" in the case of a Michigan teacher who was fired from a religious school after taking an extended sick leave.

She filed a complaint with the government based on laws prohibiting discrimination against Americans with disabilities, but the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the employment decisions of religious institutions.

"Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the decision.

"The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission," Roberts wrote.

The teacher, who was let go by a Lutheran school in Michigan after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, a chronic sleep disorder, later filed a complaint with a government agency, saying her employer had violated a law protecting the handicapped.

An appellate court had ruled in her favor, saying that while she taught religion classes, she was mainly teaching math, science and physical education -- meaning the exception did not apply.

But the church that ran the school argued the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is subject to the "pastoral exception," which shields religious institutions from governmental intervention on hiring matters.

"If you teach the doctrines of the faith... you are a minister," the lawyer for the church, Douglas Laycock, told the court back in October.








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